Dozens of farmers blocked a major highway in Armenia on Tuesday as they staged a fresh protest against a local winery’s failure to pay for grapes that were purchased from them last autumn.
The private company based in Kaghtsrashen, a village in the southern Ararat province, bought in September-November about 200 million drams ($410,000) worth of grapes from more than 100 village residents owning small vineyards. It has still not paid them, citing major losses incurred in recession-hit Russian, the main export market of Armenia’s wine and brandy industry.
Several other Armenian wineries have also failed to pay up on time, triggering similar protests in other villages in Ararat and the neighboring Armavir province in the last few months.Agriculture Minister Sergo Karapetian downplayed the protests in late December, saying that more than 80 percent of grape farmers across the country have already received payments.
Karapetian argued that most of the distilleries increased the volume of their grape purchases from farmers in 2015 despite their financial troubles caused by a sharp depreciation of the Russian ruble.
The angry Kaghtsrashen farmers blocked a nearby section of a national highway running southeast of Yerevan after the local liquor firm failed to meet a March 15 deadline for payments set by it last month. It had earlier pledged to pay the grape farmers by February 1.
“I invested all my money -- 600,000 drams -- in grapes and have still not gotten a penny in return,” one of the protesters, Sos Vartanian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). He said he is owed 3.5 million drams ($7,200).
Vartanian sold his grapes for an average of 100 drams (21 U.S. cents) per kilogram. Some of his fellow villagers could only get less than half that price. Even they have not been paid so far.
Traffic through the road resumed later in the day after two deputy ministers of agriculture and representatives of the Kaghtsrashen winery assured the protesters that they will receive payments within a month. The farmers agreed to disperse, even though many of them were skeptical about the pledge.
Kamo Araratian, a Kaghtsrashen resident who is also owed 3.5 million drams, said he has already started cutting down his 3,700-square-meter vineyard to switch to other crops because he no longer believes that he can make a living from grape cultivation.
“I have no other choice,” Araratian explained. “If it doesn’t even cover my farming costs, why should I keep it?”
“Every day they say on television that agriculture grew by 11 percent last year,” said the farmer. “But villagers worked like donkeys for the whole year and didn’t feel that growth on their skin. I guess only the agriculture minister and his deputies felt it.”